Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Gaze Of A Male

One of my chief arguments about the contemporary superhero movie (for all intents and purposes, the biggest current subgenre of blockbuster) is that it was sexless. In capturing the essence of these characters as action figures, they were rendered mostly sexless: even famous tomcat Iron Man is wedded to monogamy in the films with Pepper Potts (who, in the comics, actually married Stark bodyguard Happy Hogan for a brief while). But there was also a big of a progressive movement to ignore that these films were aimed primarily at a male audience, toning down the feminine sexuality on display. Females were still considered second citizens in these films, but it was more along the lines of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” a shit-kicker in military wear brandishing a gun and owning a slinky dress only for practical purposes.

But a friend showed me a photoset posted online that caught my eye. It was comprised of gifs featuring the male stars of the Marvel Universe films, in moments of their films where they are in various states of undress. It’s a good enough way to explain the unprecedented crossover success of “The Avengers”: here were beefcake/sensitive images of conventionally handsome-to-completely gorgeous men, emphasized for what I now realized were a female audience. Granted, male filmgoers have always wanted to see their heroes muscle-bound and raring to go, but it was usually in service of wanton brutality. But the stars of the onscreen Marvel films were hunks you could take home to mom: in particular, one of the money shots from the trailer to “Captain America” is Carter absentmindedly realizing she’s actually fondling one of Cap’s pecs. Yes, it’s a period movie, but you’d really only see that in a contemporary film.

It’s curious how the ratings board has determined well in advance that titillation was unacceptable for men, but undefined for women, leading to such images reaching the mainstream. Because of the more primitive sexuality of men, it makes some dunderheaded sense that all genitals and breasts of women would be frowned upon. But to assume that a man’s genitals served the same function is even more reductive of women’s sexuality. Never mind the bare breast issue: Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are shirtless and the camera loves them in “Captain America” and “Thor.” Call to mind “Thor,” which also features Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Jaimie Alexander, three gorgeous women, bundled up and heavily de-sexualized.

What I think this is doing is exhibiting a more evolved view of sexuality, one which hopefully leads to ideas like “ratings boards” and cries of censorship obsolete. On one hand, the women of “Thor” are immensely appealing: Portman and Dennings are scientists, and while kept under the wing of a professor played by Stellan Skarsgaard, their intellect and sense of humor are conventionally attractive, not to mention their model-ready appearances we’ve come to know through ads and magazine spreads already. The lesser-known Alexander, meanwhile, is slender, tough-minded, and assertive, all traits that make her a marvel of a character as Sif: there’s no reason to think she wouldn’t be alluring.

Consider someone like Marlon Wayans, who wrote, directed and starred in the juvenile horror spoof “A Haunted House” earlier this year. While the film is aggressively unpleasant and not very funny, there was something that, as a heterosexual man, struck me right off the bat: Marlon Wayans is an EXTREMELY handsome man with a stellar physique*. What’s interesting is that, with Wayans as the sole creative voice in this picture, many of the jokes are predicted on Wayans disrobing and being placed in a compromising or awkward position, his washboard abs and firm buttocks exposed to the audience for the sake of a gag. Comparatively, Wayans’ conventionally-attractive wife in the film is constantly made up to look unattractive in the moment, wearing sweats, nighttime medication makeup (ladies, I confess I don’t know what you call this) and displaying masculine attributes in moments like her showdown with a ghost, leading her to bellow, “I JUST KICKED YOU IN YO’ GHOST BALLS!”

When Wayans came out to speak to the audience afterwards, there was cheering, but there was also a definite amount of female catcalls. He took it all in stride, which is to say he encouraged it like a hound dog, flirting with each and every female in the crowd. Later during a press event, this continued, and given that his flirtations were tempered by his humor and the fact that he was a very handsome man, no one seemed to find it lecherous or unwelcome. In regards to the film, did Wayans know he was playing to a female fan base? Or was he blithely acknowledging the time-honored tradition that a barely-clad or naked man was always somewhat humorous? And if it’s the first, what to make of a subplot about the second most prominent female in the film and her intense desire to host a “Mandingo Party”? Questions, Marlon Wayans. You raise questions.

My mind also gravitated towards Wayans in regards to “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,”*** which weirdly ignores Wayans’ presence in the first film. As a fan of that idiotic-but-entertaining first effort, I confess I was asking, “Where’s Ripcord? Where’s Scarlett?” at least for the sake of continuity. But I soon realized it was also a product of this contemporary new sexuality. There are three moments where Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) is observed by the camera in a way that asserts her alluring conventional beauty: two where she’s in “disguise” (with one butt close-up) and one where she’s changing her clothes (into casual nightwear, so not conventionally titillating, but… c’mon, director Jon Chu). But the moments aren’t too egregious, particularly when matched (in a positive way) against her noted skill in combat and (in a negative way) her more off-putting father figure issues put to bed by a sleepwalking Bruce Willis.

But then you notice model-perfect Byung-Hun Lee as villain Storm Shadow, a character who in the source material is almost constantly masked and clothed. He very clearly died in the first film, but because “G.I. Joe” he is now alive again, and shirtless and sweaty even more times, the camera clearly loving his oiled-up abs. In a film with considerable beefcake, he’s by far the number one attraction, a decision that likely explains the character’s shift to the good guys, which I understand is not strictly canon. Along with the bromatic relationship with married-with-children Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and babysitter-on-call Duke (Channing Tatum), another alluring element for the female audience, and it’s hard to say this demographic is not being served. As far as appealing to men and women, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is just another in a long line of blockbusters ensuring equal-opportunity objectification of men and women. As far as the sex roles in the contemporary studio film, where will this take us? Honestly, I’m quite excited to find out.

*I’ve been trying to come up with a name for this: there are so many films where actors play mild-mannered men with casual lifestyles, except that the actor has a physique courtesy of some recent blockbuster they’ve done. Examples are Aaron Eckhart doing suburban drama “Rabbit Hole” with his “Battle: Los Angeles” biceps, Ryan Reynolds as regular dad in “The Amityville Horror” sporting “Blade: Trinity” abs and Marlon Wayans apparently holding onto his “G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra” musculature years later.
**The theory has always been that there’s nothing funny at all about an in-shape man. See: Joe Piscopo, Ryan Reynolds.
***I’m full of the desire to discuss this film, but it may have to be conversationally, due to the amounts of “pew pew!” and “zzzzaaaam pow wap!” I would be verbalizing.

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